TaNoTaTakoyaki opened its Little Tokyo brick-and-mortar in 2018 but they’ve been a part of the neighborhood as a food truck since 2010.
It was originally started by three surfing friends, Takeo, Nori and Taichi (thus TaNoTa). Takeo is now the sole owner of the brick-andmortar storefront in the Japanese Village Plaza.
Sharing the same space as okonomiyaki restaurant Chinchikurin, Takeo hopes to share the Osaka food culture more widely around the U.S. and encourage more people to hang out in Little Tokyo.
Meet Takeo Shibatani, owner of TaNoTa Takoyaki.
How did you get your start in Little Tokyo?
Takeo Shibatani (TS): At first, I started from some Japanese food events in 2009. I knew I didn’t want to do ramen or sushi, but rather something different. I am from Osaka, which is home to takoyaki, so I thought that’s perfect, I’ll do that.
The first time we did takoyaki at a food event we had really long lines. People waited over an hour. It was insane! So I thought this is a good business idea but a restaurant is too expensive and risky, so I decided to get a food truck instead.
That was a decade ago in 2010 and the first location we brought our food truck to was Little Tokyo. We parked on Second Street and I really annoyed a lot of people, but then the owner of Toshi Sushi [which is gone now]invited me to park in front of his shop and sell to his customers.
From that year we also did the Tanabata Festival and I met the owner of Fugetsudo, Brian Kito, whom I fought with a lot (laughs). Brian was really kind and patient with me; I was really young and had a lot to learn about running my business. I learned a lot from people like Brian.
From 2010 to 2013 we were a food truck and from 2009 to now we participated as a booth in food events. Finally from 2018 we were finally able to open up a store in Little Tokyo on First Street. Little Tokyo people have really helped me out a lot over the years. I am an Issei, or first-generation Japanese, and my English is not so good, but everyone here has helped me out so much.
What is your best memory of Little Tokyo?
TS: Definitely the Tanabata Festival. Coming to this festival introduced me to so many Japanese American people. Before that I didn’t know so much about Japanese American history. I learned so much about the neighborhood and the history of Little Tokyo from my new friends at the Tanabata Festival. I really treasure this community because of how kind they have been to me.
You’ve been in Little Tokyo for ten years now. What do you recommend to someone visiting the neighborhood for the first time to do here?
TS: There are so many famous Japanese restaurants here, such as Daikokuya or Monzo, but also great clothing stores like Popkiller and Japangeles. I really like Hakata Ikkousha and Kouraku on Second Street too.
What do you think it is that makes Little Tokyo different from all the other neighborhoods?
TS: I think that the anime culture here is really unique and that doesn’t exist in other areas, not even Sawtelle. Anime Jungle is really awesome because so many people visit Little Tokyo to go there and buy anime stuff but then eat or hang out in the neighborhood. It’s an intersection of so many people and we’ve become a meeting place for the anime culture and for Japanese food culture.
I realized that many people come to our restaurant because they watch Japanese anime or read Japanese manga and see takoyaki in anime or manga and then want to try it. For me that’s amazing because they already know so much about our food even though they have never been to Japan.
TaNoTa Takoyaki and Chinchikurin are two separate businesses sharing the same space. Why did you decide to collaborate for your restaurant?
TS: That was an easy decision. We’re both pretty much unknown foods. By collaborating we are able to share Japanese culture, and of course sell food, but really we want more people to know about the Japanese food culture. In fact, we use the same teppan grill materials.
Our teppan grills are custom-made in Japan for both our okonomiyaki and the takoyaki grills. Our teppan grills are from Japan and we went through a lot to get them approved in the U.S. but now many people are learning not just about the taste of our food but also how it is prepared. We hope that we can be a flagship for both our unique equipment and restaurant style.
What is your hope for the future of Little Tokyo?
TS: I am from Japan but I have two sons and they are born here, so they’re American. I realized that they will grow up here and might not know Japan so well, which makes me a little sad. But here in Little Tokyo they can be proud of the Japanese American heritage but learn a lot about Japanese culture too.
I hope they will have a good relationship with both Japanese and Japanese Americans and that’s why I opened up my restaurant here. We’re the biggest historic Japantown and I want us to keep growing and for more Japanese and Japanese American owners to start their businesses here too.
This interview has been translated, edited and condensed for clarity.
350 E. 1st St.
Los Angeles CA 90012